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The Discovery of Ariane (1981) by Elsie Russell. Dionysus and his retinue find the sleeping Ariadne whom Theseus has just abandoned on the island of Naxos.

Dionysus or Dionysos, from the Greek Διώνυσος or Διόνυσος also known as Bacchus in both Greek Mythology and Roman mythology and associated with the Italic Liber), the Thracian God of wine, represents the intoxicating power of wine, but also its social and beneficent influences.

He is viewed as the promoter of civilization, a law giver, lover of peace as well as the patron deity of both agriculture and the theater.

He was also known as the Liberator (Eleutherios), freeing one from one's normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine.

The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the flute and to bring an end to care and worry.

There is also an aspect of Dionysus on his relationship to the cult of the souls, and the scholar Xavier Riu tells that Dionysus presided over communication between the living and the dead.

Dionysus was the god of fertility, vegetation, the vine, and the pleasures of civilization. Dionysus was pretty much known as the partier of the Greek pantheon and was often associated with orgiastic rites. Throughout mythology he also became known as a cultivator of the soil, a lawgiver, a peacemaker, and the patron of tragic art.


Greeks borrowed Dionysus' figure and within the Greek mythology, in the Olympian tradition, he is made to be the son of Zeus and Semele; other versions of the story contend that he is the son of Zeus and Persephone.

The name Dionysus is of uncertain significance; it may well be non-Greek in origin, but it has been associated since antiquity with Zeus and with Nysa, which is either the nymph who nursed him, or the mountain where he was attended by several nymphs who fed him and made him immortal as directed by Hermes; or both.

The above contradictions suggest to some that we are dealing not with the historical memory of a cult that is foreign, but with a god in whom foreignness is inherent. And indeed, Dionysus's name is found on Mycenean tablets as DI-WO-NI-SO-JO, and Kerenyi traces him to Minoan Crete, where his Minoan name is unknown but his characteristic presence is recognizable. Clearly, Dionysus had been with the Greeks and their predecessors a long time, and yet always retained the feel of something alien.

The Bull, the Serpent, the ivy and wine are the signs of the characteristic Dionysian atmosphere, infused with the unquenchable life of the god.

Dionysus is strongly associated with the Satyrs, Centaurs and Sileni. He always carries a thyrsus. Besides the grapevine and its wild barren alter-ego, the toxic ivy plant, both sacred to him, the fig was also his. The pine cone that tipped his thyrsus linked him to Cybele, and the pomegranate linked him to Demeter.

The Dionysia and Lenaia festivals in Athens were also dedicated to Dionysus.


He is usually depicted as a very youthful god scantly clothed. His head is crowned with vine leaves and grapes, and carrying a goblet of wine in one hand and a thyrsus staff headed with a pine cone in the other. There are a few random pieces of art that feature him as a mature and bearded man crowned in ivy.


Introduced into Rome at about 200 BC from the Greek culture of lower Italy or by way of Greek-influenced Etruria, the bacchanalia were held in secret and attended by women only, on three days in the year in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and March 17.

Subsequently, admission to the rites were extended to men and celebrations took place five times a month. The notoriety of these festivals, where many kinds of crimes and political conspiracies were supposed to be planned, led in 186 BC to a decree of the Senate; the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Calabria (1640), now in Vienna; by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate.In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree, the Bacchanalia were not stamped out, at any rate in the south of Italy, for a very long time.

Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus and Liber. Liber ("the free one") was a god of fertility and growth, married to Persephone. His festival was the Liberalia, yet celebrated on March 17.


The civilization was very aware of Dionysus' rites and behaviours. They even went so far as to ban his worship in some areas. King Pentheus of Thebes tried to imprison him, but the chains fell off and doors could not be closed. His worshippers were called Maenads (Dionysus) and/or Bacchantes, Bacchus and Satyrs.

Other Names

Dionysus sometimes has the epithet Bromios, meaning the thunderer or he of the loud shout. Another epithet is Dendrites; as Dionysus Dendrites (he of the trees), he is a powerful fertility god. Dithyrambos (he of the double door) is sometimes used to refer to him or solemn songs sung to him at festivals. The name refers to his premature birth. Iacchus, possibly an epithet of Dionysus, is associated with the[Eleusinian Mysteries; in Eleusis, he is known as a son of Zeus and Demeter.

Eleutherios ("the liberator") was an epithet for both Dionysus and Eros. As Oeneus, he is the god of the wine-press. With the epithet Liknites (he of the winnowing fan) he is a fertility god connected with the mystery religions. A winnowing fan was similar to a shovel and was used to separate the chaff from the good, cut grain. In addition, Dionysus is known as Lyaeus (he who releases) as a god of relaxation and freedom from worry. In the Greek pantheon, Dionysus (along with Zeus) absorbs the role of Sabazios, a Phrygian deity, whose name means shatterer and to whom shattered pottery was sacrificed. In the Roman pantheon, Sabazius became an alternate name for Bacchus.

Companions of Dionysus

Dionysus is usually shown in the company of others who are enjoying the fruit of the vine. Silenus or multiple sileni and nymphs engaged in drinking, flute-playing, dancing, or amorous pursuits are the most common companions. Depictions of Dionysus may also include Maenads, the human women made mad by the wine god. Sometimes the part-animal companions of Dionysus are called satyrs, whether meaning the same thing as sileni or something else.

God’s life

The Birth

Dionysus had an unusual birth that evokes the difficulty in fitting him into the Olympian pantheon.

  • In a first version his mother was Semele, daughter of Cadmus, a mortal woman, and his father Zeus, the king of the gods.

Zeus's wife, Hera, as jealous as ever, discovered the affair while Semele was pregnant. Appearing as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her husband was actually Zeus. She pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. So she demanded of Zeus that he reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Mortals, however, cannot look upon a God without dying, and she perished. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born.

  • In another version, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the Underworld. Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by sending Titans to rip Dionysus to pieces after luring the baby with toys.

Zeus drove the Titans away with his thunderbolts, but only after the Titans ate everything but the heart, which was saved, variously, by Athena, Rhea, or Demeter.

The rebirth in both versions of the story is the primary reason he was worshipped in mystery religions, as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence.


The legend goes that Zeus took the infant Dionysus and gave him in charge to the rain Nymphs of Nysa, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for their care Zeus rewarded them by placing them as the Hyades among the stars. Alternatively, he was raised by Maro.

When Dionysus grew up he discovered the culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious juice; but Hera struck him with madness, and drove him forth a wanderer through various parts of the earth. In Phrygia the goddess Cybele, better known to the Greeks as Rhea, cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he set out on a progress through Asia teaching the people the cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several years. Returning in triumph he undertook to introduce his worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it brought with it.

As a young man, Dionysus was exceptionally attractive. Once, while disguised as a mortal on a ship, the sailors attempted to kidnap him for their sexual pleasures. Dionysus mercifully turned them into[dolphins but saved the helmsman, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors.


Once, Dionysus found his old school master and foster father, Silenus, missing. The old man had been drinking, and had wandered away drunk, and was found by some peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas (other version had him passing out in Midas’ rose garden). However the king recognized him, and treated him well, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus entertained Midas and his friends with stories and songs. On the eleventh day he brought Silenus back to Dionysus. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wanted. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Dionysus consented, though was sorry that he had not made a better choice. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched and turned to gold an oak twig and a stone. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. Then he found that his bread, meat, daughter and wine turned to gold.

Upset, Midas strove to divest himself of his power the Midas Touch; he hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. He did so, and when he touched the waters the power passed into them, and the river sands changed into gold. This was a cosmogony that explained why the sands of the Pactolus were rich in gold.

When King Lycurgus of Thrace heard that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he imprisoned all the followers of Dionysus, the Maenads. Dionysus fled, taking refuge with Thetis. Dionysus then sent a drought and the people revolted. Dionysus made King Lycurgus insane, and he sliced his own son into pieces with an axe, thinking he was a patch of ivy, a plant holy to Dionysus. An oracle then claimed that the land would stay dry and barren as long as Lycurgus was alive, so his people had him drawn and quartered. With Lycurgus dead, Dionysus lifted the curse.

When Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on Naxos, Dionysus found and married her. She bore him a son named Oenopion, but he committed suicide or was killed by Perseus. In some variants, he descended into Hades to restore her, with his mother, to the gods on Olympus; in others, he had her crown put into the heavens as the constellation Corona.

Parallels with Christianity

It is possible that Dionysian mythology would later find its way into Christianity.

There are many parallels between Dionysus and Jesus; both were said to have been born from a mortal woman but fathered by a God, to have returned from the dead, and to have transformed water into wine. The modern scholar Barry Powell also argues that Christian notions of eating and drinking "the flesh" and "blood" of Jesus were influenced by the cult of Dionysus. Certainly the Dionysus myth contains a great deal of cannibalism, in its links to Ino (however, one must note that Dionysian cannibalism has no correlation with self-sacrifice as a means of propitiation). Dionysus was also distinct among Greek gods, as a deity commonly felt within individual followers. In a less benign example of influence on Christianity, Dionysus' followers, as well as another god, Pan, are said to have had the most influence on the modern view of Satan as animal-like and horned one.


It is also possible these similarities between Christianity and Dionysiac religion are all only representations of the same common religious. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the story of Jesus turning water into wine is only found in the Gospel of John, which differs on many points from the other Synoptic Gospels. That very passage, it has been suggested, was incorporated into the Gospel from an earlier source focusing on Jesus' miracles.

According to Martin A. Larson in The Story of Christian Origins Osiris was the first saviour, and all soteriology in the region borrowed this religion, directly and indirectly, including Mithraism and Christianity, from an Osirian-Dionysian influence.

As with their common dying and resurrected savours, they all share common sacraments, ostensibly grounded in their reliance on seasonal cereal agriculture, having adopted the rituals with the food itself. Larson notes that Herodotus uses the names Osiris and Dionysus interchangeably and Plutarch identifies them as the same, while the name was anciently thought to originate from the place Nysa, in Egypt (now Ethiopia).

The subject of Dionysus is complex and baffling. The problem is further complicated by the fact that he appears in at least four characters: first, as the respectable patron of the theatre and the arts; second, as the effeminate, yet fierce and phallic mystery-god of the bloodthirsty Maenads; third, as the mystic deity in the temples of Demeter; and fourth, as the divine saviour who died for mankind and whose body and blood were symbolically eaten and drunk in the Eucharist of the Orphic-Pythagorean celibates. Beyond this, almost all barbarian nations had their own versions of Dionysius under many names. And yet there is a simpler explanation: Dionysus, Bromius, Sabazius, Attis, Adonis, Zalmoxis, Corybas, Serapis, and Orpheus himself are replicas of their grand prototype Osiris; and the variations which appear among them resulted from the transplantation of the god from one country to another, and reflect simply the specific needs of his multifarious worshipers

Art inspired by the God

In his book The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche contrasted Dionysus with the god Apollo as a symbol of the fundamental, unrestrained aesthetic principle of force, music, and intoxication versus the one of sight, reason, form, and beauty represented by the latter, while the two remain intrinsically related and dependent upon one another in an endless state of conflict.

The Russian poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov elaborated the theory of Dionysianism, which traces the roots of literary art in general and the art of tragedy in particular to ancient Dionysian mysteries. His views were expressed in the treatises The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), and Dionysus and Early Dionysianism (1921).

Inspired by James Frazer, some have labeled Dionysus a life-death-rebirth deity. The mythographer Karl Kerenyi]] devoted much energy to Dionysus over his long career; he summed up his thoughts in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Bollingen, Princeton) 1976.

In his graphic novel series Eddie Campbel used the character of Bacchus to explore conventions of the super-hero whilst also utilising the character to explore such themes as the human experience; artistic endeavour; myths, stories and narrative; and also as reference to Nietzsche with his contrast of the eternal Dionysus, Bacchus, against the temporary Apollo, Simpson.

Dionysus is the main character of Aristophanes’s play The Frogs, later updated to a modern version by Stephen Sondheim. In the play, Dionysus and his slave Xanthius venture to Hades to bring a famed writer back from the dead, with the hopes that the writer's presence in the world will fix all nature of earthly problems. In Aristophanes' play, Euripides competes against Aeschylus to be recovered from the underworld.

See Also


  • Farnell, Lewis Richard, The Cults of the Greek States, 1896. Volume V, cf. Chapter IV, Cults of Dionysos; Chapter V, Dionysiac Ritual; Chapter VI, Cult-Monuments of Dionysos; Chapter VII, Ideal Dionysiac Types.
  • Fox, William Sherwood, The Mythology of All Races, v.1, Greek and Roman, 1916, General editor, Louis Herbert Gray.
  • Kerényi, Karl, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, 1976.
  • Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur, The Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, 1946.
  • Ridgeway, William, Origin of Tragedy, 1910. Kessinger Publishing (June 2003). ISBN 0766162214.
  • Ridgeway, William, The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of non-European Races in special reference to the origin of Greek Tragedy, with an appendix on the origin of Greek Comedy, 1915.
  • Riu, Xavier, Dionysism and Comedy, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (1999). ISBN 0847694429. [1]
  • William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, article on Dionysus [2]
  • Sutton, Dana F., Ancient Comedy, Twayne Publishers (August 1993). ISBN 0805709576.

External links